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9 Ways to Stop Your Child's Picky Eating Habits That Really Work!

Having a picky eater at home can be tough, but these tips will help!

Having a picky eater at home can be tough, but these tips will help!

Is It Normal for My Kid to Be a Very Picky Eater?

If you are anything like me, your grocery shopping revolves around your toddler and their likes/dislikes that week! Mac and cheese was a hit last month so you buy 80 boxes this month, smirking like a fool at the check-out because they don't realize you are Super-Freaking-Mom today! Then when you serve the first box you hear, "I don't like this anymore; it's too sticky!" It's okay to cry... I feel you.

So besides having 79 boxes of macaroni and cheese to get rid of, you have to come up with another meal choice in a pinch, so you ask "What do you want?" Congratulations if you get a straight answer that doesn't involve cookies or ice cream.

Every single parent goes through this with their children at some point, and it is never easy. There is no quick, overnight fix to end picky eating, but there are a few amazing ways to curb it and make your life much easier! So here you go moms .... hopefully, these ideas will bring as much success to you as they did for me. (Well, this week anyway!)

1. Start Early!

Okay let's face it, for most of you this one has long since passed! However, it is never to early to start planning for the next picky eater! Many parents are guilty of creating their child's bad habits, and one way we do this is by programming them to like certain foods.

When they are small we feed them mushy, bland foods because that is what we are supposed to do! If you spent the first years of your life eating food with no texture or taste, you would shy away from a little crunch too!

Start exposing your child to different textures early in life so they won't be as likely to be displeased because something is "squishy" or "slimy".

2. Don't Engage in Power Struggles

Often times I find myself arguing with my three-year-old over something absolutely absurd! I am the adult, why am I even discussing this with you? Oh, yeah, because you are a person, too. A little person, but still a person whose opinion matters!

Telling your child they MUST eat everything on their plate, or they HAVE to eat their peas will only make them turn up their noses, dig in their heels, and yell "No way!" Avoid using power words that gain control over a person and instead try saying:

  • My peas are so yummy I ate them all, what was so yummy you ate it all?
  • Could you please finish at least one vegetable and half of something else?
  • Maybe you could find room for just a couple more bites if you tried really hard? (This is when I pretend to feel all over their belly and find a spot for three more peas!)
  • Please ..... you would be amazed how far you get when asking instead of telling!

3. Allow Them to Help You Plan the Week's Menu!

Kids want to be included, they crave attention and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Allowing them to participate in the menu planning gives them an opportunity to have their tiny voice heard, and that means so much to a child.

Have them sit down with you and choose a few meals each week. Let them pick what they want and don't argue with them about it. If they suggest cookies, you could redirect by saying "We need everyone to eat healthy so they won't get sick, we could have cookies for dessert, though!" That way you are not saying no to their idea, but still teaching them that it is important to be healthy. If they choose pizza and pickles, let them have pizza and pickles. I would probably do that for lunch, though!

4. Grocery Field Trips!

This has been the single biggest success for me when it came to getting my kids to try new foods! Go to the grocery store and take your time looking at all the different types of food and produce. Let them touch things and encourage them to pick out one thing they have never had, but would like to try. Some new foods have been met with a big YUCK! However, it was also how my daughter found out she liked mango, kiwi, plums, and many types of vegetables.

Kids will love having the freedom to choose whatever they want, and will be excited to rush home and try their new find. You might find a slew of new foods your kids will eat that you had just dismissed, like broccoli or okra!

Additionally, if you have the space growing a garden together has the same effect and they learn a great life skill!

5. The One-Bite Rule

Ask (don't force) your child to eat at least one bite of everything on their plate. If they don't like it, that's okay, but they might find it is delicious and eat all of it! You can add a little flair and make it fun using one of these ideas:

  • Tell them you will take a bite at the same time and then the two of you will compare notes on what you each thought about it!
  • Tell them you want them to explain how it tastes to you .... Is it sour, sweet, or salty? Mushy or crunchy?
  • Have them close their eyes and try a bite of something new; what color does it taste like? (My kids adore this, they laugh so hard when they think it is orange but it is actually green .... I still haven't figured out why that is so funny .....)

Make sure you put at least one best seller on their plate because you ultimately do want them to eat something!

6. Don't Force Them

This sounds a lot like don't engage in power struggles, but it is altogether different! We get frustrated and assert our authority over them by telling them they need to eat it all. Power struggle is when you argue with your child, forcing is when you give them no choice to argue!

Dinner time should be a time for bonding and creating memories with each other, a special time of day where you are all finally in one place and together! it shouldn't be something that is dreaded because they know they are going to be forced to finish their peas, and they hate peas!

Dealing with a picky eater is never fun!

Dealing with a picky eater is never fun!

7. Stop Worrying!

As parents, we are hard-wired to worry constantly, about our children. It is a paternal instinct to keep your child healthy and alive. If they are not getting the correct nutrition from all the different food groups how can they be healthy? So if they never eat a vegetable how are they getting the right vitamins and minerals? It's enough to drive you insane!

Calm down, guys! Kids will eat what they need to stay alive, they won't let themselves go hungry! If you are truly worried about their nutrition, add a daily vitamin to their diet! Don't ruin a child's experience with food because you are a worrywart!

8. Don't Punish Them for Not Eating!

Please don't punish your child because they don't eat what you think they should. There are many reasons a child won't eat their food, one being they might really not like it. You might think they are being dramatic, or you might think that they are purposely being disobedient, but please don't punish them.

People often find themselves saying things like "If you don't eat I am taking away TV." do you really want your child to choke down something that makes them gag just because they want TV? What if you are forcing them to eat when they are not hungry? Would you want someone to make you eat anchovies before you could watch CSI? I sure wouldn't!

My son has a sensory issue and certain types of pasta make him gag. I didn't realize this was even a thing (YET!), and couldn't understand why he would eat spaghetti sauce on macaroni noodles but would say he didn't like ziti? So I told him - I knew he liked it because he had it before, and ate it all, and to please try one bite ..... BAD CHOICE! It actually made him physically sick all over himself and my floor!

Needless to say, I felt like the worst human being in the entire world at that moment! He was spoiled rotten the rest of the day, and I learned a valuable lesson! What if I had punished him when he refused to eat it? Would that have been fair?

Should you bribe a picky eater?

Should you bribe a picky eater?

9 Don't Bribe!

If you eat all your broccoli I will buy you a doll! Boy, how many of you have heard (or used) this one before? How many of you have a basket of trinkets at the ready for moments just like these? Finish all your food and you can have a puppy!

Let's examine this for a minute. If someone approached you and said "Hey, eat all that mashed potatoes and I will give you five bucks" and they did give it to you as promised, what would you do at the next meal? You bet your .... well let's just say I would refuse to eat until I was offered another five dollars, and I wouldn't stop.

Kids are not stupid by any means, they are very clever and know a good thing when they see it. So if refusing to eat for a minute gets them promises of candy and toys, they are going to learn how to use that to their advantage!

Good Bribe Vs. Bad Bribe

Bribes are not always bad when worded correctly! However, it is usually best to stay away from them when possible! I am a mom so I understand that sometimes it is easier to do whatever gets them to eat, but can you afford to get a toy at every meal?

Good BribeBad BribeWhy

I would love to have our yummy cake for desert as soon as you eat a bit more healthy food!

Eat your chicken and I will give you a king size candy bar!

Desert is something that everyone participates in after they eat healthy food, a candy bar is just a reward for eating.

I would love to go for ice cream but we really need to eat something good before going to get junk food!

Eat your peas and carrots and I will give you Ice cream!

Again it's the wording, in the first example your not giving a reward your offering an activity but you need a full belly first, the second is a reward just for eating!

Lets watch TV and cuddle but can we fill up our bellys first so we are nice and comfortable and our bellys don't growl?

Eat your food and you can watch Tv!

The first is not saying you won't watch Tv together you just want them to be full and happy, the second implies no Tv unless they eat.

Maybe we can go play at the park once we eat and get some energy!

Eat your food and I will take you to Walmart to get a Toy!

The second one is giving a huge reward for something they should be doing anyways, while the first is giving them a good reason why they should eat before they go!

10. Put the Electronics Away

Besides being a fabulous writer .... heh .... I am a waitress, and I watch hundreds of family's a week eat together. The single most annoying thing to see is a family where every single member has their nose shoved into some form of electronic device! Seriously, what happened to turning off the TV, taking off your hat, no elbows on the table, "what did you do today?" family dinners? They just disappeared!

Now I am no stranger to electronics- I love my tablet and my laptop- and would probably shrivel up in a corner detoxing from them. However, dinner time is family time, bottom line! Put them away for ten minutes and show your child that eating is a family event and they will be more likely to join in!

Letting your child watch TV or play games on their handheld devices while eating is a terrible idea! Kids will not focus on their food and therefore will not eat nearly as much!

Turn them off, seriously! If you cannot go an hour without them for dinner then your child likely has more pressing issues to worry about, like being neglected for Facebook!

Is Your Child Not Eating Right?

Getting children to eat healthy and nutritious food is a war. Sometimes the only thing you can do is gather your armor and hope to win a handful of battles! If you utilize the ideas above you should notice a giant improvement in your kid's picky eating habits! However, even the best of us have to let our kids win once in a while!

If you really want to understand why your toddler won't eat, study their habits. You will need to get to the root of the problem before you can work on fixing it! Once you determine why they are not eating well, you will be better prepared to negotiate the tricky terrain of picky eating!

Some reasons a child won't eat well are:

  • They really don't like what you are giving them! If you have gotten your kid to take a bite and they consistently decline a certain type of food, there is no point in pushing it.
  • They don't feel well! Does your little one eat fine sometimes and other times wants nothing to do with food? Are there certain times of the day they don't eat? There may be a bigger problem involved.
  • Certain food may make them not feel well. Recently people have become more aware of gluten and dairy allergies. If your kid is declining to eat a specific type of food it may be that food is making them feel yucky!
  • They may not be hungry! Just because lunch is at 12 and dinner is at 6 doesn't mean your kid is hungry then. If you notice your little one is asking for food at later times you may have to adjust your eating schedule!
  • Too many snacks! I am a huge fan of snacking, if it is healthy! If my child wants apples I give them apples! If they want carrots ..... guess what they get! However, sometimes snacking can interfere with meals, just keep an eye on when they are snacking and if they eat better when they don't snack during the day!
  • Too tired to eat! My children are normally six out of the seven dwarfs, but the minute they get tired out comes Grumpy! I cannot get a bite into them when they are tired, they just are not interested in food! Maybe try lunch after their nap instead of before and see if that helps their picky eating habits!
  • Drinking too much! Just as with snacking I do not say no if my littles want water or milk! It is just as, if not more, important they stay hydrated. However, we don't drink close to or during meals because I don't want them to fill their bellies with juice! We get drinks after or halfway through meal time. I do the opposite of this. I try to fill up before eating which is what made me think of this.
  • Sensory Issues! It never occurred to me before the ziti accident occurred, that my kid may have sensory issues. Since then I have become much more aware of what he likes, dislikes, and why. Most of the things he dislikes have a certain texture. So maybe it is not the taste so much as the texture. To get around this I will cook some foods differently. They don't like crunchy, okay, I will boil the vegetables! It works!

Picky Eaters Are Not Bad Eaters

Just because your little one is not fond of certain foods, or tries to make mealtime a battle field, doesn't mean you have to engage. They are not bad, just in need of some guidance.

Children don't have the skills needed to understand why eating is important to their health, they don't understand correct nutrition, have no idea why they need vitamins, and could not tell you what a calorie is. All they know is this is good, this is yucky, I am hungry and now I am not, and what you are showing them.

If they know they can control something in their lives by refusing to eat, they will! Don't show them it bothers you or make it a big deal, and you will see results. Kids will eat when they are hungry, and won't if they are not.

Remember, if nothing else is working you can always resort to the old standby. Eat what is given to you or wait for the next meal because I am not a short-order cook. That's what my mom did and (I would not be surprised to hear) what most of yours did and here we are, just fine, worrying about our kids now!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Please share with us your ideas, tips, and advice!

Meagan Ireland (author) from Maine on April 19, 2018:

A lot of parents have this problem. I don't know what it is about chicken nuggets that all children love so much, but most kids go through that phase.

Somethings I have tried with my own daughter (4yrs) include:

Exploring new recipies that are made with the things she likes. For example, you said your kid likes cheese and chicken; maybe a cheesy chicken casserole? Grilled chicken sandwiches?

Allowing a child to help in the kitchen is a great way to get them trying new things. They will either munch of stuff while cooking, or be more open to trying something they've made themselves.

If all else fails, you might need to implement a little tough love. Make one meal for everyone. If she refuses to eat that's okay, put it away for later. When she decides she is hungry refer her back to supper. No junk food, no snacks, supper first. If she refuses until the next meal is served, start over. Eventually, she will get hungry enough to at least try eating what's being served, but if she knows she can get you to make her favorite food than why should she bother trying? I know it sounds harsh, or even cruel, but they will survive! Obviously, don't make things you know she doesn't like. Try to find stuff that she will try to eat and eventually sneak new foods in. If she absolutely refuses and it gets to the point where she's gone all day not eating you'll need to make compromises but it usually won't go that far!

Good luck!

Harry on April 19, 2018:

My daughter is 5 and all she wants to eat is anything with cheese. She won't eat anything else outside of Chicken Nuggets/Tenders, fish sticks and cheese. I am not sure what to do, it is frustrating and getting expensive to have to make two different meals every night. Does anyone have any advice?

Beth Price from Alabama on December 22, 2017:

My son will be three January the 9th and has decided to practically stop eating. First, there was surgery to remove his adnoids and put tubes in both ears. That started the "extra super picky eater" stage. Then he got the flu. We are all just now getting over it but he has just about stopped eating. Today he had about 3 bites of cereal, a cup of milk (a couple of hours after the cereal), 2 peanut butter crackers and very little 4-5 bites of veggie rotini w/ vegetable spaghetti sauce. That's actually a lot more than he has been eating.

We've had trouble with mealtime since he started eating solid food. From this short paragraph, I know it doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but I am going to have his pediatrician schedule some tests just to make sure. There are other factors involved as well. He throws up a lot and has a hair-trigger gag reflex.

Meagan Ireland (author) from Maine on September 12, 2017:

Hey, thank you for the read and sending a comment! I really hope the ideas help! My daughter was three when the picky eating got really bad, lol! These things really helped get things back on track! Thanks!

Leah Kennedy-Jangraw from Massachusetts on September 12, 2017:

Great article, a lot of great advice here. My three year old is going through a picky phase and I invite any and all advice I can find! Some of the things you suggested we already do but I will be using some of your other tricks. Thanks so much!

Meagan Ireland (author) from Maine on July 11, 2017:

LoL! Thanks for sharing Elizabeth! I have a step-son (4 almost 5) and a daughter (3 almost 4) and they are day and night! My daughter is a constant battle at mealtime, that's actually what made me put these ideas into effect!

After one particular stressful evening, where I made three different things for her to eat, and she did not eat a bite of anything, I decided I was at my wits end! I expressed this with my boyfriend, who of course had the viewpoint of if she is growing fine she is okay, we sat down and brainstormed ideas to implement into our daily lives. The key being, she could not notice or know our plan!

I couldn't believe how much of a difference just putting away electronics made! We asked ourselves, what is distracting her attention away from food, came up with electronics, took them away during mealtime (which was a HUGE fight at first), and once she got used to the rule it really had a big impact! Then everything else stemmed from other ideas and now she eats fairly well!

My step-son, he will eat anything! In fact, a funny story to share with you, we went on a nature walk this evening with the kids after dinner to look for salamanders! My step-son started throwing up, and I had noticed him chewing right before that! He had grabbed a piece of grass because he saw daddy chewing on one. However, he didn't realize Daddy was not eating the grass, he was just chewing on the very end (like a farmer lol) so he popped the whole thing in and proceeded to chew it up and swallow it! He has sensory issues as I mentioned in my article and the texture I guess made him sick. See, the kid will literally eat anything! Not my girl, she is fussy!

Thanks again for sharing a piece of your life, and memories with us!

elizabeth from Buncombe County, NC on July 11, 2017:

Hi Meagan:

I am exhausted after reading this excellent list of tips, and very grateful that my sons are all grown up. I only remember one thing about feeding my three sons. Allthough they were close in age and all pretty much treated the same concerning food, they were all totally different when it came to meal time. One was constantly picky and disinterested in food, the next loved eating and often requested certain things and the third would forget to put the hamburger patty into the bun and actually eat the entire thing not realizing the meat was missing. What's a mother to do?